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Members of a tour to the Mexico-United States border pray at the wall dividing the two countries. Silvia Rios

Members of a tour to the Mexico-United States border pray at the wall dividing the two countries. Silvia Rios

Migrant tour offers answers, allows for change

Ryan Miller
January 25, 2008

TUCSON, Az. – An 11-day tour along the United States-Mexico border was designed to educate about immigration and trade issues. The experience changed one participant’s entire worldview.

From his Salem, Ore., farm, Stan Steffen had watched the immigrants come for years. Many came from the south, working for low wages for the local agriculture industry, allowing large farms to drive up area land prices higher than family farmers could afford.

"I had my own feelings about immigrants that weren’t very positive," Steffen said.

The third day of the November migration and trade learning tour in southern Arizona and northern Mexico found Steffen and nine other Anabaptists on the south side of a steel wall marking the border between Agua Prieta, Sonora, Mexico, and Douglas, Ariz. In his hand were slips of paper with the names of migrants who had died crossing the border. For 30 minutes after reading a litany, they stood silently, thought about what they had learned about trade imbalances and injustices and prayed.

"The more I read and get involved and get interested in the subject, I see we had the wool pulled over our eyes," Steffen said. "Our agriculture programs here in the U.S., our subsidies, have a lot to do with why (migrants) are coming up here."

Since Steffen's return to Oregon, he has spoken out in support of immigrant workers and educated those around him about the reasons for the increase in immigration from the south.

The border tour was co-sponsored by Mennonite Mission Network’s Peace and Justice Support Network (PJSN), West Coast Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), and MCC Great Lakes. BorderLinks, a 21-year-old experiential education ministry operating out of Tucson, Ariz, also provided staff and other resources.

MCC’s Jodi Read planned the itinerary in conjunction with Borderlinks, which included meetings with fair-trade merchants and experiential learning about how trade agreements have crippled parts of the Mexican economy by sending cheap, subsidized produce south. Read also helped to promote and lead the tour.

At Casa Misericordia (House of Mercy), the BorderLinks office in Nogales, Sonora, Mexico, BorderLinks-Mexico director Francisco Trujillo told the group that the imports and agreements with the U.S. government have forced Mexican farmers to grow crops like coffee for export instead of producing goods that could feed Mexican families. The resulting imbalances create a need for jobs, making northward immigration and the low-paying jobs in local U.S.-owned maquilas (factories) attractive.

Leo Hartshorn, Mennonite Mission Network’s minister of peace and justice, was struck by the view from atop a Nogales hill overlooking the maquilas. To the north, the group watched workers mingle among small shacks on winding dirt roads. On the south side of the maquilas stood a row of expensive homes built for the company managers. Hartshorn said the contrast between the two neighborhoods mirrors the economic interactions between the United States and Mexico.

"Economic issues, which are linked to U.S. benefits from trade agreements, are a major force driving the migration of people to the U.S.," Hartshorn said. "These interconnections are shaped by trade agreements and government policies. It is incumbent upon the people of God living in cities that reflect these economic interconnections to learn about immigration, border issues and trade."

Hartshorn said U.S. Mennonites need to understand that immigration and trade issues often are more complicated than found in headlines or sound bites. The PJSN Web site (peace.mennolink.org/immigration.html) offers a variety of resources for individuals and congregations seeking to learn more about immigration issues.

Hartshorn said Mennonites also should consider:
• Buying fair trade goods from various merchants;
• Writing government representatives and local newspapers in support of trade and immigration legislation that supports fairness and justice;
• Discovering and connecting with local groups working on immigration issues.

After spending time at the border, the group traveled to Washington D.C. to share their experiences and observations with policymakers. The group met with senators and representatives from their home states and encouraged them to acknowledge the connections between trade and immigration and to work at these issues together.

For many policymakers, these conversations offered a new and different lens through which to see immigration issues.

"I think the most remarkable thing for me was to see how Stan [Steffen] could articulate his experience in a very different way than he could have at the beginning," said Read.

As a ministry of Mennonite Mission Network, PJSN is committed to informing Mennonite Church USA about the realities of immigration, both at the border and elsewhere in North America.

"In spite of the seemingly intractable problems along the border, and the economics of the poor campesinos (farmers), there were signs of God’s presence," Hartshorn said.

Steffen’s transformation perhaps was one of the more remarkable signs. He went on the tour only after a push from his pastor, Jack Knox of Salem Mennonite Church. He has returned speaking the language of reconciliation, initiating conversations among members of his small group, Sunday school class, congregation, family and farming community.

"We (must) practice forgiveness, not only to the immigrant but to the people who have created this problem, and get on with fixing it," Steffen said. "There needs to be a working together to try to help our neighbors."

More information is available at the PJSN Web site. Other resources, including Mennonite Media’s documentary "Beyond the News: Immigration," are available through Third Way Café or through Mennonite Central Committee. PJSN and MCC U.S. will soon jointly release a brochure on the recent MCC US Immigration Listening Project conducted among Anabaptist communities, available at mcc.org/us/immigration/bookletpluscoverrereport.pdf